Virtual war

In Kosovo, war enlisted western citizens only in virtual ways. If future wars don't require mobilisation or sacrifice then what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force?
April 19, 2000

The kosovo conflict looked and sounded like a war: jets took off, buildings were destroyed and people died. For the civilians and soldiers killed by Nato air strikes, and the Kosovars murdered by Serbian police and paramilitaries, the war was as real and as terrible as war always is. For citizens of the Nato countries, on the other hand, the war was virtual. They were mobilised not as combatants but as spectators. The war was a spectacle and the events were as remote from their essential interests as a football game. Virtual war is war with death removed, waged in conditions of impunity.

If this is to be the future of war for us, it raises a question: what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force? Precision weaponry may force us to re-assess an old assumption about democracies: that they go to war less often than authoritarian regimes; and that they rarely, if ever, go to war against fellow democracies. Democracies may remain peace-loving only so long as the risks of war remain real to their citizens. If war becomes virtual-without risk-democratic electorates may be more willing to fight, especially if the cause is justified in the language of human rights and democracy itself.

For much of the 20th century in the west, the power to wage war has resided with presidents and prime ministers. As Peter Hennessy and Matt Lyus have pointed out, parliament was not consulted over the Korean war, the Suez war, the Falklands war or the Gulf war. Nevertheless, in each of those cases the executive was able to act in the knowledge that parliamentary opinion was broadly behind it. In the wars of the future, prime ministers are likely to appeal over the heads of our elected representatives to seek directly the virtual consent of voters. This is essentially what happened in Kosovo, and those who favoured military intervention strongly approved of Tony Blair's skill in creating a consensus for military action. But there are real dangers in virtual consent. Ordinary citizens are in no position to subject a military operation to the kind of scrutiny it needs. Only parliament can do that. The institutional checks and balances of a democratic system help to clarify the goals and purposes of war. When military operations are unsanctioned and undeclared, as they were in Kosovo, their objectives can change from week to week, depending on what our leaders decide they should be. At first, citizens were asked only to support a limited air campaign in Kosovo, designed to force a recalcitrant regime back to the negotiating table. Within days, the military objective had expanded into an all-out crusade to stop and reverse ethnic cleansing. Even when the ambit of operations widened, the public was never told what kind of result was being sought.

The decay of institutional checks and balances on the war-making power of the executive has received little attention in the debate over the Kosovo conflict. The only issue of political legitimacy to arouse discussion was the failure of the Nato allies to seek Security Council approval for the use of military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Intervention in Kosovo was justified at the UN on the grounds that urgent necessity over-rode the requirement of formal consent, which in any case could not have been achieved in the face of the Chinese and Russian vetoes. When a house is on fire, you do not seek a search warrant before entering to put out the blaze. This argument drew on the UN's experience in Rwanda, where inaction in the Security Council led to the death of 1m people. This argument from necessity has merit, but failure to secure formal approval further undermined the legitimacy of the military operation. Opposition to the war focused on Nato's failure to abide by the letter of the Charter. The claim that its spirit was being respected was convincing to those who made it, but sounded like an argument from force majeure to everyone else.

Thus, one lesson of the conflict is that there needs to be a renewal of both national and international institutions with the power to ratify the decision to go to war. The Security Council must be reformed; enlarged so that it can become more representative of the world's populations; and restructured so that military operations can be authorised by a majority vote, rather than obstructed indefinitely by a veto. Of course this is unlikely-but reform remains necessary even if it is difficult to achieve. The great powers, especially the US, face a difficult choice: they can either embark on unsanctioned military adventures, only to see these fail because they lack international approval; or they can surrender autonomy in return for the increased likelihood of that approval. The same executive power which authorised a Kosovo today, also authorised Vietnam and El Salvador yesterday. The day will surely come when the executive will seek to intervene somewhere in the name of human rights, and will do so in a manner which violates the principles it purports to defend. Then, our democracies may be too weak to save themselves from disgrace.

in virtual war, citizens are not only divested of their power to give consent. They are also demobilised. War no longer demands the type of physical involvement or moral attention it required over the past two centuries. War has been associated with mass mobilisation since the first French revolutionary army of the 1790s. The revolutionary armies transformed war from a battle between dynasties into a confrontation between peoples.

Total mobilisation proved to be a malign consequence of the marriage between democracy and nationalism: if all are citizens, all must serve; if a nation is attacked, all its sons must defend it. In the total wars of the 20th century, mobilisation of the population sank deep roots into the psyche, helping to define the ideals of masculine and feminine identity and connecting masculinity with the idea of the upright carriage of the drill-yard, the coarse jocularity of the barracks, and strict self-control in the face of danger and death. Military ideals of discipline-vertical, hierarchical, unquestioning-exerted an influence well beyond military life; in school, prison and factory.

We cannot understand the deliriously happy crowds which greeted war in 1914 unless we appreciate that the general mobilisation offered them a moment of ecstatic moral communion with fellow citizens. Moreover, to the degree that these crowds could anticipate the bloodshed that lay ahead, they did so within a framework of assumptions very different from our own. The sacrifices of war were somewhat easier to accept in societies used to high infant mortality and the unchecked scourges of illness and disease. Moreover, in cultures that still soldered the identity of the individual and the identity of the nation together in the idea of the "ultimate sacrifice," death in battle retained its glory. At Charles Jagger's brooding tribute to the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner in London, we see an affirmation of sacrifice which is now utterly remote. The warrior has become an anomalous figure in what Edward Luttwak calls a post-heroic culture.

The arrival of the nuclear era further eroded the logic of mobilisation for national defence. Britain got rid of national service in the early 1960s; the US abolished the draft in the 1970s. One month after victory in the Kosovo war, Congress did away with the funding for maintaining a draft lottery in peacetime. Just before the Kosovo war France announced that it would end conscription. The conflict occurred just as a large parenthesis in the history of warfare was closing: the end of the 200-year history of conscription and the mobilisation of society that went with it.

But when war ceases to be connected to national survival, it can lose its reservoir of support among citizens. The fissure between war and vital national interest first became apparent in Vietnam. The longer the war went on-in the name of values, of defending a small "democratic" country against invasion from the communist north-the less defensible it seemed to the US public. It is often said that this disaffection was the work of television news. Once citizens see the body-bags lined up on the landing pads, their taste for foreign adventure is bound to evaporate. Yet war does not become illegitimate simply because citizens see carnage on their screens. It becomes illegitimate when the political reasons for it no longer convince. The Vietnam war was made unsustainable by the doubt lodged by the anti-war campaign in the minds of the political elite, a doubt reinforced by the tenacity of the north Vietnamese.

The d?bâcle in Vietnam widened the gulf between civilian and military culture. The warrior has become a full-time professional and the values which the military seek to inculcate-honour, courage, sacrifice, love of country-have diverged from the values rewarded in the civilian economy. Military values command less automatic assent in society, with the result that they have become politicised. Sensing their alienation from the American mainstream in the 1980s, the officer class has entered the political struggle to re-orient the country back to fundamentals. The post-Vietnam US has been a battleground between religious and secular, liberal and conservative values; in this battle, most of the officer elite has become ever more Christian, conservative, and Republican in politics, and southern and midwestern in origin. There is little communion between them and the liberal, secular circles who sustain the demands for human rights interventions.

As war loses its hold over national identity and the language of patriotism, it is also losing its role in the economy of advanced states. In times past, wars could bankrupt societies, and economic constraints were a fundamental limit on the length and ferocity of conflict. These economic limits are in the process of disappearing for an advanced society like the US. The US may spend $290 billion a year on its defence-an enormous figure by the standards of any other nation, but it is only 3 per cent of its gross domestic product. In the new post-industrial, computer-based economy the military mobilises fewer resources than before.

Moreover, the terms of trade between the military and civilian spheres have been reversed. In the industrial era, war was an important engine of technical innovation, and defence expenditure drove the economy. Many of the innovations which made possible the computer revolution-the internet and encryption, for example-originated in the military-industrial complex. In the post-industrial era, the private economy leads and the military follows. When the marines go to Wall Street to learn about decision-making under stress, and when the military turns to Wal-Mart to learn about logistics, the era of military mobilisation of the civilian economy is over.

war thus becomes virtual, not simply because it appears to take place on a screen, but because it enlists societies only in virtual ways. Nothing ultimate is at stake: neither national survival nor the fate of the economy. When war becomes a spectator sport, the media become a decisive theatre of operations. If a consensus in favour of humanitarian intervention can be shaken-as it was in Somalia-by the sight of a single US serviceman's body being dragged through Mogadishu, then keeping such images off the screen becomes a core objective of the military art.

The presence of cameras in the field of operations does more than exert a constraint on military actions. It changes the focus of hostilities from the enemy's fielded forces to the civilian opinion at home which sustains the will to fight. Since the end of the cold war, no opponent of the US has had the means to resist its power. The only viable responses have been asymmetrical, aimed not at military objectives per se, but at US public opinion: terrorism against civilian targets or US installations abroad; cyberwar against US computer systems; and, most important of all, media war. After the first night of Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein lost his air defence against allied aviation over Baghdad, but he did have a powerful weapon in his arsenal-the media-and he did not have to wait long to use it. As soon as the Amiriyah Bunker was hit by Stealth bombers on 13th February 1991, he invited western television crews to film the carnage. The US's claim that it had been a legitimate military target-a command and control bunker-became irrelevant once it was revealed that 300 women and children from military families had been incinerated there. The Iraqi regime is not notably concerned for the lives of women and children-witness its gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988-but it understood that its best chance of stopping the bombardment of Baghdad lay in getting the cameras in. And so it proved. The pictures of the carnage had the desired effect. Western opinion reacted against the bombing, and it was curtailed.

In the Kosovo war, likewise, the Milosevic regime stood little chance of actually shooting down Nato bombers and cruise missiles. Instead, the regime tried to use western media to undermine support for the war at home. Television crews duly reported the bombing of the Serbian television station, the Serbian socialist party headquarters, the train on the bridge, the refugee convoys in Kosovo. This reportage sowed doubt in the minds of a western electorate which had been in favour of military action when the bombing began. By the end of the operation, poll support for further bombing slipped below 50 per cent for the first time, and it is doubtful that military action could have continued much longer than it did.

This aspect of war is new: there were no Allied reporters in Berlin, Hamburg or Dresden when those cities were bombed; there were no German journalists covering the Allied side of the trenches in the first world war. The distance between home and the battlefield has diminished, and this transforms journalists from observers into protagonists. Western journalists in Belgrade were faced with difficult choices: if they went on Serb-organised tours of Nato attack sites and reported what was presented to them as true, they risked being seen as dupes of the Serbian regime; if they refused, they risked deportation or losing the pictures to their competitors. In fact, journalists found themselves exploited by both sides in the conflict. Nato attempted to manipulate the press into believing that alliance cohesion was being maintained and that the bombing was working. The Serbian regime attempted to use the western media to erode domestic political support. The public at home did its best to winnow out the small grain of truth from the chaff of disinformation on both sides.

The attack on the Serbian television station illustrates just how complex and dark the truth could be. In peacetime, disgruntled citizens of Serbia did discount much of Serbian television as propaganda on behalf of an unpopular regime. In wartime conditions of censorship and alarm, they rallied to its message. Nato command sought to strike the television system in order to weaken Milosevic's capacity to communicate with his domestic support; and, secondly, to put the transmitters out of action as military relays.

But the strike raised difficult issues. Within Nato command, allies were at loggerheads: with British lawyers arguing that the Geneva conventions prohibit the targeting of journalists and television stations, and the US side arguing that the supposed "hate speech" broadcast by the station foreclosed its legal immunity under the conventions. By the time the target had been struck, the public had been well prepared by western background briefers. This, too, is a new development. In real wars of the past, belligerents concealed their intentions. In virtual war, both sides broadcast them. In real war, belligerents seek to inflict real damage. In virtual war, both sides seek to inflict perceptual damage, to undermine civilian morale.

The Serbs had only to look at the broadcast of the daily Nato briefings to western journalists to realise that the television station was a likely target. And when western news crews were warned to keep clear of the building on the day of the proposed attack, Serb officials deduced that an attack was imminent. Why then were 15 people, including a young female make-up artist, on duty when the Stealth bomber struck? In the case of the ministry of defence and the military police headquarters in Belgrade, the Nato briefings had indicated that these were targets, and they were cleared of personnel days before the attack. Many media workers in Belgrade suspect that the television authorities ordered their staff to remain in the building, knowing that it was about to be attacked. Why? In order to create an incident which could be used to sway western opinion against the bombing. And why the television station? Because of all targets, it was the one which, if hit, would create most adverse reaction among the western media. And so it proved. Indeed, the only way to explain why the station was struck is that Nato wanted to prove that it would not be deterred by such criticism. The bombing was a demonstration of ruthlessness in a war which had given Serbia more than a few occasions to doubt Nato's resolve.

The western military's response to this sharpened moral and political exposure has been to call in the lawyers. Military lawyers had no place in targeting decisions in the air war over Vietnam in the 1960s. But by 1989, when the US invaded Panama, military lawyers were offering legal advice on a variety of issues, from avoiding intrusions into Cuban airspace to restitution of seized civilian property. By 1991, concerns about maintaining the legitimacy of coalition warfare in the Gulf brought military lawyers into the planning of the air and ground wars. By 1999, they were integrated into every phase of the air campaign. Military lawyers, attached to US European Command, sat at computer terminals and contributed assessments of the standard Geneva convention questions for each target. Was the objective military? Were the means selected proportional to the objective? What were the risks of damage to civilians? The texts of the Geneva conventions themselves were available on screen.

Precision photography has made it possible for lawyers and targeting specialists to distinguish individual parts of buildings from others. So that in the case of the Serbian television strike, two blocks of the complex which housed administrative staff were excluded from the strike. Improvements in ballistics, and in modelling of explosive impacts, enabled weaponeers to predict with unprecedented accuracy what spray of damage a particular weapon was likely to cause. Every one of the more than 500 targets in Kosovo was subjected to this type of review.

The use of precision weapons increases with every conflict. In 1991, during the Gulf war, they amounted to 8 per cent of the ordnance dropped on Iraq. In 1999, precision ordnance had risen to 35 per cent. But legal imperatives combined with public expectation will drive warfare towards 100 per cent precision weapon use. And soon, precision guidance technologies will be applied to small arms as well as large bombs. If you have the technology to discriminate (so the argument runs) you incur the moral obligation to do so.

the language used to mobilise citizens for war-sacrifice, honour and country-is a virtual rhetoric, increasingly unreal to the citizenry on behalf of whom the military are sent. The same can be said of the language of values-human rights above all-used to justify intervention in the first place. It is often said that these values have a purely rhetorical existence. But this is no longer the case. These values have acquired legal conventions backed by powerful institutional constituencies which significantly limit the freedom of states to abuse their own citizens.

But do these conventions establish a de facto right of humanitarian intervention? Non-western nations, especially Russia and China, insist that the UN Charter's presumption in favour of national sovereignty should not be changed. But western nations-especially Nato countries-have maintained, at least since the end of the cold war, that they do have a warrant to intervene where breaches of human rights are flagrant and persistent, and where they constitute a threat to international peace and security. The Chinese and the Russians can withhold UN approval for military intervention, but short of threatening nuclear war, they cannot stop them.

So the limits on the west's use of military power for humanitarian missions are mainly self-imposed. Although critics of US imperialism would deny it, these self-imposed limitations are substantial. Democracies committed to self-determination cannot consistently deny self-determination to others. (Western countries do not always live up to this injunction-consider the US's covert assistance to the Chilean military to overthrow Allende.) The same commitment to self-determination rules out the use of force for conquest. We can drive oppressors out; but we are not entitled to use military force to acquire an empire or new pieces of territory. Nor are we entitled to use military power to change a regime by force. So our tanks did not enter Baghdad or Belgrade.

This self-limitation has both admirable and negative consequences. What is admirable is the determination to leave behind an imperial past. What is negative is that western interventions do not last long enough to make a difference. Leaving aside the endemic inefficiency, even corruption, of the UN and EU bodies which have administered the short-lived protectorates of the post-cold war era-from Cambodia to Angola, from Bosnia to Kosovo-these half-hearted protectorates reflect a conflict within our principles: between commitments to human rights and to self-determination. Western states believe in defending human rights, but not at the price of taking territory to make these values prevail. In this gap between commitment and action lurks the problem of bad faith. Military force is credible only to the extent that the will that uses it is credible. If an opponent doubts our commitment to use force, we are then forced to use force, not in service of a strategic objective of our own choosing, but because our bluff has been called. Such was the case in Kosovo. Milosevic reasoned that, at worst, he would have to endure a relatively brief set of air strikes directed at his air defences-on the model of the Balkan air operation in summer 1995 which paved the way for the Dayton agreement. If he could survive this, Milosevic believed, then he might be home free. The alliance would not have the stomach for ground operations, and he might be able to drive the Kosovar Albanians from their land and end up, after several weeks, with Nato divided and Serbia in possession of an ethnically cleansed Kosovo. He made the wrong gamble-but the very fact that he considered gambling against overwhelming force indicates the weakness of liberal democratic states. The west's commitment to human rights is cancelled out by its unwillingness to take casualties, and its commitment to help the vulnerable is cancelled out by its unwillingness to take and hold territory. Moreover, moral reticence in relation to the use of force may increase the propensity to use it. We wage war, not because we want to, but because we have seeded a doubt about our seriousness which only a concerted display of violence can eradicate.

another constraint on the use of military power is the requirement of alliance support. Since Vietnam, the American elite has been aware of the dangers of going it alone in military affairs. In the Gulf war, military success depended on assembling a coalition which included Arab states. In Kosovo, coalition support was even more critical to the legitimacy of force because there had been no attempt to secure UN Security Council approval. But maintaining this support among 19 nations proved difficult. Some, like Greece, had long-standing religious and economic ties to the enemy. Others, like Italy, had few direct ties, but they were on the firing line. Hungary joined Nato only to find itself at war with its next-door neighbour, and with a substantial number of its native language speakers-the Hungarians of Vojvodina-potential hostages in Milosevic's hands.

The operation was presented to the public as a display of alliance cohesion. In reality, the Americans did most of the fighting. The US flew over 60 per cent of all sorties, over 80 per cent of the strike sorties, over 90 per cent of the advanced intelligence and reconnaissance missions, over 90 per cent of the electronic warfare missions, and fired over 80 per cent of the precision-guided weapons and over 95 per cent of the Cruise missiles. Americans also kept their Nato allies excluded from all targeting decisions involving American aircraft, and denied them intelligence for all targets struck by American missiles or planes. At the political level, the alliance held together. At the military level, alliance cohesion was a myth. Each nation reserved the right to refuse to send its air crews into operations which had not received explicit sanction from its national governments and its targeting lawyers. Thus the British refused to take part in the bombing of the Serbian television station. The French refused to take part in strikes against Belgrade bridges. And when a Russian tank column, attached to the Nato force in Bosnia, raced to Pristina airport in June 1999, and Wesley Clark, supreme commander, Europe, ordered General Michael Jackson, the British commander of Nato troops in Kosovo, to prevent the Russians occupying the airport, Jackson refused, going to his political superiors in London to secure authorisation to refuse the command.

The alliance held, but it did so by becoming virtual. If the publics in the 19 Nato countries had known just how divided the alliance was-General Clark calling for a ground option, the Pentagon dissenting; the US air commanders demanding to go to Belgrade, the French refusing; the Germans seriously considering Russian peace plans, the British and Americans appalled by their apparent willingness to appease Milosevic-their support would have begun to crumble. As it was, leaks about this disunity were becoming apparent by the end of the campaign-one reason why the alliance may have decided to end operations in early June and settle for less than total victory.

virtual war proceeds to virtual victory. Since the means employed are limited, the ends achieved are equally constrained: not unconditional surrender, regime change or destruction of the military capacity of the other side, only an ambiguous "end state." Thus the Nato alliance contented itself with a "military technical agreement" which specified the terms and timing of Serbian withdrawal and the entry of Nato troops, but left undefined the status of the territory over which the war was fought. Wars fought in the name of the human rights of other nations' national minorities are bound to be self-limiting. We fight for victory and for unconditional surrender only when we are fighting for ourselves.

But why-in Iraq and again in Kosovo-did we shrink before the idea of changing a hated regime? We demonised both Saddam Hussein and Milosevic and yet left them in place (although the US and Britain has continued to bomb Iraq in order to maintain a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan). This gap between rhetoric and performance once again reflects a conflict in our own interests: between human rights and stability. A rogue state is judged to be better than no state at all. A Serbia and an Iraq under despotic leaderships are both preferred to societies dissolving into civil war. And because western nations believe in self-determination, they are unwilling to occupy these defeated states and rebuild them from the bottom up in a properly imperial fashion. But a world in which richer nations are unwilling to bring order to poorer nations is a less stable world. One of the realities of the post-cold war world has been the collapse of the state structure of three regions-the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Great Lakes region of Africa-into endemic civil war.

Virtual wars fought in the name of largely passive electorates for the sake of virtual victories are unlikely to produce long-lasting advantages to those who wage them. Nor are the advantages which leadership in the "revolution in military affairs" confers on the US likely to be permanent. The technologies are neither abstruse nor expensive, and in time, the US will lose its monopoly over them. There is a contradiction between American national security which directs US policy towards safeguarding its monopoly, and American commitment to free trade and open markets which favours exporting military technology worldwide. Over the long term, the contradiction is likely to be resolved in favour of American capitalism. If American companies wish to export encryption, super-computers and weapons technologies to other nations, national security considerations will not be allowed to stand in their way. Other nations will begin to produce and deploy long-range precision-guided weapons and the US will become more vulnerable to attack. In response, it will have to develop missile defence systems to protect the continental US. Already the US is poised to go it alone-much to the alarm of its European allies-with a national missile defense system to counter the very technologies in which it once held an unassailable lead.

As for rogue states, they are likely to take the advice proffered by the Indian general who remarked after the Gulf war that its chief lesson was: "Never fight the Americans without nuclear weapons." While the Indian government has no desire to fight the Americans, it has certainly followed its general's advice, acquiring a nuclear capability in order to deter the Pakistanis and the Chinese. The revolution in conventional weaponry is thus accelerating proliferation in the nuclear and the chemical and biological fields. Saddam Hussein sought to acquire a stock of chemical anti-nerve agents precisely because the Gulf war had taught him that his armed forces stood no chance against US and Israeli air power. American missile defence systems can be counted on to knock down the precision weapons of rogue states; but there is no possible deterrent, other than unremitting vigilance, against the release of small but lethal doses of chemical or biological toxins against US citizens.

War endures because human interests, values and commitments are occasionally irreconcilable. The conflict in Kosovo was unbridgeable: between a state bent on maintaining control of a territory by any means whatever, and an ethnic majority determined to fight for self-determination. A central commitment of the world since Auschwitz, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-that nation-states do not have the right to massacre their citizens-would have been weakened if we had not been prepared to use force in their defence. We should be prepared to do so in the future, and with determination. When the sword is raised, it must be used to strike decisively, for only decisive force yields the results which can justify its use in the first place.

Having said this much for war-and for the necessity of war in defence of human rights-we need to reflect on the potential for self-righteous irrationality which lies hidden in abstractions such as human rights. I come back to where I began. If, for us in the west, war is without risk, there is a real danger that we will find ourselves committed to a host of unwi